Sunday, December 23, 2007
The revelation of the Divine Reality hath everlastingly been identical with its concealment and its concealment identical with its revelation. That which is intended by ‘Revelation of God’ is the Tree of divine Truth that betokeneth none but Him, and it is this divine Tree that hath raised and will raise up Messengers, and hath revealed and will ever reveal Scriptures. From eternity unto eternity this Tree of divine Truth hath served and will ever serve as the throne of the revelation and concealment of God among His creatures, and in every age is made manifest through whomsoever He pleaseth.
-the Bab from the Persian Bayan
The veil gives rise to meditation: if they wear a mask, or masquerade or conceal themselves, then there must be a behind-the-mask, a knowledge that is kept secret from us. The mystery that is assumed to be concealed by the veil is unconcealed by giving a figural representation to this mask and to the act of masquerading as an enigmatic figure. However, what is thus unconcealed, i.e. the "masquerade," the "veil," is the act of concealment itself. The veiled existence is the very truth of Oriental women; they seem to exist always in this deceptive manner.
-Meyda Yegenoglu in Colonial fantasies: Towards a feminist reading of Orientalism
Pay particular attention to the term veils of light in this final passage.
In this city, even the veils of light are split asunder and vanish away. “His beauty hath no veiling save light, His face no covering save revelation.” How strange that while the Beloved is visible as the sun, yet the heedless still hunt after tinsel and base metal. Yea, the intensity of His revelation hath covered Him, and the fullness of His shining forth hath hidden Him.
-Baha'u'llah in the Seven Valleys: the Valley of True Poverty and Absolute Nothingness
Light, a symbol of Divine Revelation, and its reflection in creation is the image at the heart of Baha'u'llah's doctrine of the Manifestation of God. If the Manifestation is the light of God, then this final passage raises strange questions about what is meant by the veils of light are split asunder and vanish away. Suddenly, the moments of Revelation or Manifestation (these two terms are not necessarily used in the same way) are not so simple. Just look at it! Light is the barrier and not the intermediary! In Baha'i writings that's scandalous! But multiple passages bear witness to this stunning assertion. After all, the revelation of the Divine Reality hath everlastingly been identical with its concealment and its concealment identical with its revelation.
So what does this make of the Manifestation of God? Is He a partial Manifestation, e.g. in Exodus 33.23 when Moses is shown God's "back" (Exodus 33.23)? Is the Manifestation of God an outright deception, a mask, a surrogate, something put in place of a full Revelation which in numerous places Baha'u'llah states would result in one's....well.....uh....."physical and/or psychological undoing?" In other words, is the Manifestation of God a means of approach or an actual detour? Perhaps my formulation of this dilemna is entirely misguided. Regardless, Baha'u'llah's writings give no easy answers. Instead, the series of passages bearing on these issues raise more questions than answers.
Monday, December 10, 2007
That which the Lord hath ordained as the sovereign remedy and mightiest instrument for the healing of all the world is the union of all its peoples in one universal Cause, one common Faith.
(Baha'u'llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 90)
The day is coming when all the religions of the world will unite, for in principle they are one already. There is no need for division, seeing that it is only the outward forms that separate them. Among the sons of men some souls are suffering through ignorance, let us hasten to teach them; others are like children needing care and education until they are grown, and some are sick -- to these we must carry Divine healing. Whether ignorant, childish or sick, they must be loved and helped, and not disliked because of their imperfection.
(Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 120)
The above quotation from Baha'u'llah can often be rather intimidating. No doubt the scariest part is His apparent rejection of religious diversity, that all people will share one common Faith. In this interpretation, the healing of all the world would be that everybody would be Baha'i and that Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, etc. would disappear from the face of the earth. This of course would cause major chafing with Baha'u'llah's other teachings on the importance of good-will towards the followers of other religions.
Abdu'l Baha though articulates this future unification in a different way. All the religions of the world will unite. As Baha'u'llah's right hand man throughout His ministry and as the authorized interpreter of His words this passage from His Paris Talks should be taken very seriously in understanding the above quotation from Baha'u'llah. Rather than the domination of one central position outward over all others, Abdu'l Baha sees this event as a merging inward of many different positions into one. The old religions remain intact. They still exist. But the important part is that they come to an understanding of themselves as fundamentally united. That this has not already happened (as it should have) is the result of ignorance. This leads Abdu'l Baha to the exhortation, let us hasten to teach them.
The important word here is teach. Typically this word is associated with efforts to expand and consolidate membership in the Baha'i community. But in this context its not really about membership. It's about the diffusion of Baha'u'llah's teachings as they apply to other religions. Abdu'l Baha is not interested in poaching people from other religions. In this passage this is not teaching. Rather, teaching is acquainting people with the essentials of their own religion as revealed again by the Manifestation of God for this day, Baha'u'llah. And if this is what is meant by teaching the Cause of Baha'u'llah in the mind of Abdu'l Baha then that brings into view the very definition for being a Baha'i.
Below is another passage, this time from the collection Abdu'l Baha in London.
A student of the modern methods of the higher criticism asked 'Abdu'l-Bahá if he would do well to continue in the church with which he had been associated all his life, and whose language was full of meaning to him. 'Abdu'l-Bahá answered: "You must not dissociate yourself from it. Know this; the Kingdom of God is not in any Society; some seekers go through many Societies as a traveller goes through many cities till he reach his destination. If you belong to a Society already do not forsake your brothers. You can be a Bahá'í-Christian, a Bahá'í-Freemason, a Bahá'í-Jew, a Bahá'í-Muhammadan. The number nine contains eight, and seven, and all the other numbers, and does not deny any of them. Do not distress or deny anyone by saying 'He is not a Bahá'í!' He will be known by his deeds. There are no secrets among Bahá'ís; a Bahá'í does not hide anything."
(Abdu'l-Baha, Abdu'l-Baha in London, p. 97)
The fascinating line here is the Kingdom of God is not in any Society. The usage here of the word "society" is that of an organization, a concrete gathering of people with membership rolls, meetings, dues, etc. i.e the National Geographic Society. In this sense the Baha'i teachings are not constrained to any one organization or society, but are instead free to be applied in their fullness within a variety of already existing communities. Certainly there is a specifically "Baha'i" community. Its maturation into a distinct body was only just beginning when Abdu'l Baha made these statements in London. But that does not detract from the wide applicability that Abdu'l Baha saw for His father's teachings. The triumph of the Baha'i faith in this context does not necessarily mean universal membership in the Baha'i World Faith. So what it means is a coming age in which the practitioners of the world's religions look upon each other as companions on a common spiritual journey and co-workers on a single divine project.
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
So here it is.
As it turns out, Abdu'l Baha seems to regard Baha'i and Quaker conceptions of Divine Revelation as more compatible than I personally have given them credit for. As for the Persian "Society of Friends" that he mentions, I have no idea who he's talking about. They sound cool though, just like their English counterparts.
Friday, November 30, 2007
(Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 85)
More and more I keep coming back to this conception of the Baha'i faith as a revolutionary movement. Reference to the many passages in Baha'u'llah's writings enjoining obedience to one's government are insufficient to deter me from this understanding of the faith's activity as one of resistance. The only reason for this is that it is His writings themselves that keep goading me on. Passages enjoining obedience have their place. But they are far from all Baha'u'llah has to say about revolutionary social change. Baha'u'llah clearly did not support insurrection against established authorities. That was implied by his prohibition against holy war in 1863 at his Ridvan declaration. But the imagery employed and the analogies used in His writings from that same period present an understanding of a Baha'i community that carries on a spirit of resistance against those who seek to obstruct the mission of Baha'u'llah. Domination, punishment, and revenge are ideas clearly expressed in the text itself. Far from distancing himself from historical instances of holy war in His writings from the years immediately following his Ridvan declaration Baha'u'llah goes so far as to compare his own ministry and the efforts of His followers with some of the most venerated and explosive moments of holy war in Shia Islamic memory. Holy war may be out. But religious resistance has by no means gone with it. Instead it is stirred to new life through a fresh reformulation that while shutting down some possibilities for social change opens up new ones as well. Below are some passages that have led me in this direction.
That which hath befallen Us hath been witnessed before. Ours is not the first goblet dashed to the ground in the lands of Islam, nor is this the first time that such schemers have intrigued against the beloved of the Lord. The tribulations We have sustained are like unto the trials endured aforetime by Imam Husayn......
By the righteousness of God! Through his deed the fragrances of holiness were wafted over all things, the proof of God was perfected, and His testimony made manifest to all men. And after him God raised up a people who avenged his death, who slew his enemies, and who wept over him at dawn and at eventide. Say: God hath pledged in His Book to lay hold upon every oppressor for his tyranny, and to uproot the stirrers of mischief. Know ye that such holy deeds exert, in themselves, a great influence upon the world of being -- an influence which is, however, inscrutable to all save those whose eyes have been opened by God, whose hearts He hath freed from obscuring veils, and whose souls He hath guided aright.
The day is approaching when God will have raised up a people who will call to remembrance Our days, who will tell the tale of Our trials, who will demand the restitution of Our rights from them that, without a tittle of evidence, have treated Us with manifest injustice. God, assuredly, dominateth the lives of them that wronged Us, and is well aware of their doings. He will, most certainly, lay hold on them for their sins. He, verily, is the fiercest of avengers.
(Baha'u'llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, Suriy-i-Muluk p. 204, 206)
Baha'u'llah understands the sacred history of his own movement as a reflection of events from early Islamic history. First, there is the appearance of a heroic figure whose efforts are struck down by an evil persecutor. Second, there is a movement which rolls back the oppression of the persecutor, gets avenges the suffering of the former, and establishes a new order of divine justice. The Imam Husayn and the overthrow of the Umayyads are the twin moments Baha'u'llah references.
Muhammad's grandson, the Imam Husayn led a failed attempt to overthrow the Muslim Caliph Yazid of the Umayyad dynasty. Engaged in battle at Karbala before gathering his troops he and his 72 companions were grossly outnumbered by the 40,000 troops amassed by Yazid. Following his death, Husayn was immortalized as the archetypical Muslim who sacrificed everything he had in the name of God and His justice. Furthermore his martyrdom became a rallying cry for all who regarded the family of the Prophet as the rightful heirs to leadership of the Islamic world. Today they are knowns as the Shia, the branch of Islam from which the Babi and Baha'i movements emerged.
In the above passage on the Imam Husayn, Baha'u'llah has this to say. And after him God raised up a people who avenged his death, who slew his enemies, and who wept over him at dawn and at eventide. If there is anyone in history who could be said to have fulfilled this role it is Abu Muslim, his warriors, and all other revolutionaries involved in the overthrow of Yazid's dynasty, the Umayyads. Upon spreading the word that a member of the Prophet's family was willing and capable to take up the Caliphate Abu Muslim and others led a broad-based revolt to restore that sacred office to its rightful owners. In large part this was understood as revenge for those members of the family who had been martyred in the past, including the Imam Husayn and his father Ali. Dyeing their clothes black and marching behind banners of the same color the forces of Abu Muslim took their stand against the Ummayads. Beginning from the region of Khurasan to the east of the Caspian sea, Abu Muslim and his troops swept across Iran all the way to Egypt, deposing the caliph, and inaugurating the era of the Abbasid dynasty.
Though Baha'u'llah does not specifically name Abu Muslim in the above passage, the interpretation that it refers to him is born out by more than a lack of more plausible historical alternatives. Abu Muslim and the war against the Ummayads had already been memorialized within the Babi-Baha'i community as its predecessor. When Mulla Husayn one of the Bab's leading disciples waged holy war in defense of their faith, he did so in the Iranian province of Khurasan. And sealing the Abu Muslim analogy he and his troops marched behind black banners, just like the 8th century revolutionary. At the time this was intriguing enough. The Bab had not forbidden holy war, as did Baha'u'llah a generation later. To follow in the footsteps of Abu Muslim made quite a bit of sense. But for Baha'u'llah to endorse this analogy after his prohibition of holy war indicates a strong continuity of thought on the subject of religious struggle even though there was a clear break from physical violence.
In both instances the idea of revenge is crucial. That the memory and teachings of Baha'u'llah are lifted up means that someone else is cast down. One could limit this deposition to those individuals who persecuted Baha'u'llah in His lifetime. But the Abu Muslim analogy does not require that. Yazid was long gone by the time the Umayyads were deposed. But the descendants and the social arrangement he represented lived on. It was this state of heresy and injustice that Abu Muslim deposed. In Baha'u'llah's writings the individual persecutors are times only symbols of a broader injustice that embraces a wider context. Take the quotation with which I began this entry. The world's equilibrium hath been upset through the vibrating influence of this most great, this new World Order. Mankind's ordered life hath been revolutionized through the agency of this unique, this wondrous System -- the like of which mortal eyes have never witnessed. Baha'u'llah has in mind far more than struggle against the ruling classes of the Ottoman or Persian empires when we He speaks of revolt, triumph, and revenge. What He has in mind is a transformation, indeed a revolution, of affairs that embraces all of humanity. That Baha'u'llah still takes seriously the Abu Muslim analogy indicates that this turn from one age to the next bears resemblance to the switch from the Umayyad to the Abbasid dynasties. Overturning the reigning the religio-socio-political arrangement, the servants of God labor to install a new one in line with God's justice.
Below are two passages that help illustrate the means by which the Baha'i community is to accomplish this transformation.
[to the kings of the Earth] By the righteousness of God! It is not Our wish to lay hands on your kingdoms. Our mission is to seize and possess the hearts of men.
(Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 49)
Beware lest ye shed the blood of anyone. Unsheathe the sword of your tongue from the scabbard of utterance, for therewith ye can conquer the citadels of men's hearts. We have abolished the law to wage holy war against each other. God's mercy, hath, verily, encompassed all created things, if ye do but understand. Aid ye your Lord, the God of Mercy, with the sword of understanding. Keener indeed is it, and more finely tempered, than the sword of utterance, were ye but to reflect upon the words of your Lord.
(Baha'u'llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, Suriy-i-Haykal p. 22)
Rather than directly confronting the kings of the earth on the battlefield, Baha'u'llah chooses to bypass their thrones in favor of the hearts of humanity. Rather than unsheathing swords of iron He admonishes His followers to unsheathe swords of utterance and understanding. Swords are still unsheathed. Struggle goes on. But it is no longer a physical battle. Instead, Baha'is are sent forth to compete for the allegiance of people's hearts. They are instructed to edify minds and souls, not to destroy bodies in the name of God.
The loss is that this may deprive Baha'is of immediate means by which to overthrow unjust governments. The upshot though is that this allows Baha'is to operate in a far larger number of localities. No government wants to host movements with insurrectionary tendencies. For better or worse they want subjects who will not take direct action against their rule. Some may call this appeasement of oppressors. But on the other hand it allows for the wider propagation of Baha'u'llah's message of global justice. Immediate action against state-actors has its appeal. But if it results in the widespread suppression and mistrust of the vehicle of God's justice then such violent action can be regarded only as a distraction, a dissipation of resources, and a squandering of vital opportunities. Baha'u'llah presents a vision of holy war that eschews these immediate political diversions. He goes straight to the heart of the matter, the diffusion and consolidation of His guidance, setting the stage for the emergence of God's justice.
It is the establishment of this new World Order that is the revenge he seeks against His enemies, those who stand in the way of His justice. Some people and the attitudes they represent have a place in that world. Others do not. For these there are swords of utterance and understanding. He, verily, is the fiercest of avengers.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
from the essay "the Dispensation of Baha'u'llah" in his compilation "the World Order of Baha'u'llah"
So go ahead, read the essay. It's rather short and only takes a minute or two to read.
If I had to add anything to Momen's argument, it is that the relative smallness of Baha'i communities is a major factor preventing the emergence of the faith as a "metareligion." While religious communties are still small there is a great pressure on individuals to uphold the essentials: in this case the Revelation of Baha'u'llah and contemporary efforts to propogate His message. If Baha'is do not promote the central core of the faith, then this runs the risk of the faith losing its focus, momentum, and possibly even its existence. Thus, there is an almost existential imperative for all Baha'is to represent the faith as a whole and not just as a facet.
But as communities grow and become more firmly established, individuals have a greater luxury of individualizing their religious experience. In this case, a larger Baha'i community can accommodate for those among its ranks who want to pursue things like Buddhist medititation, Sufi mysticism, indigenous art, or any number of things in a Baha'i context. Since recognition and understanding of Baha'u'llah is firmly established, there is then greater freedom for people to branch out and explore the relationship of the faith to assimilate "non-Baha'i" aspects of their heritage or interests into their Baha'i experience. This does not mean that such branching does not exist. Certainly, every Baha'i community, indeed every person, embodies this process of individuation and exploration. But this has only been made possible on past growth and will only become more possible in the future on the basis of further expansion and consolidation.
I observed this first hand as I made my transition from Catholicism (1 billion strong globally) to the Baha'i faith (6 million strong globally). Whereas in the past I saw myself as a counterbalance to the excesses of others in the Church, I quickly found that there was no room for such specialization in my immediate Baha'i community. I could no longer be a mere gadfly. I had to take the position of Baha'i normalcy and hold to it. In a way, I had to be the Baha'i faith in general. Any sort of specialization would only manifest as a distortion, inasmuch as the branch would predominate over the trunk.
If anything, I hope that Momen's thoughts can contribute to a greater understanding of Baha'i teachings on the unity of religion. Most important of all, a possible Baha'i future can not be imagined as an extension purely of the existing Baha'i present. The evolution of no community is ever complete. The appearance of the Baha'i faith today as "just another world religion" cannot be assumed as an adequate understanding of its future, and thus by extension, its present. The spiritual unity of the human race is possible in ways as yet unexpressed and unthinkable.
Friday, November 16, 2007
The following two paragraphs are the preface to Niezsche's Genealogy of Morality, a book with which I've had an on and off love affair since I first read it back in the spring. It points to a particular lack of mindfulness, of daydreaming through life without ever waking up, a postponement of reality in favor of its knowledge.
We don’t know ourselves, we knowledgeable people—we are personally ignorant about ourselves. And there’s good reason for that. We’ve never tried to find out who we are. How could it ever happen that one day we’d discover our own selves? With justice it’s been said that “Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also.” Our treasure lies where the beehives of our knowledge stand. We are always busy with our knowledge, as if we were born winged creatures—collectors of intellectual honey. In our hearts we are basically concerned with only one thing, to “bring something home.” As far as the rest of life is concerned, what people call “experience”—which of us is serious enough for that? Who has enough time? In these matters, I fear, we’ve been “missing the point.” Our hearts have not even been engaged with that—nor, for that matter, have our ears!
We’ve been much more like someone divinely distracted and self-absorbed into whose ear the clock has just pealed the twelve strokes of noon with all its force and who all at once wakes up and asks himself “What exactly did that clock strike?”—so we rub ourselves behind the ears afterwards and ask, totally surprised and completely embarrassed “What have we really just experienced?” And more: “Who are we really?” Then, as I’ve mentioned, we count—after the fact—all the twelve trembling strokes of the clock of our experience, our lives, our being—alas! in the process we keep losing the count . . . So we remain necessarily strangers to ourselves, we do not understand ourselves, we have to keep ourselves confused. For us this law holds for all eternity: “Each man is furthest from himself.” Where we ourselves are concerned, we are not “knowledgeable people.”
This blog received most of my attention over the summer when it was a scratchpad for a commentary on the Baha'i Long Obligatory Prayer. Its founding assumption was that spirituality is always in some way a movement of thought. The objective of the project was simple: to think the Long Obligatory Prayer. The hope was that an exploration of the ideas conveyed and referenced in the prayer could breathe new life into the spiritual practice of its performers. Now, after all that work I have a 70 odd page manuscript sitting on my bookshelf, waiting for a revision at some point in the future. But something is terribly missing.....besides readers. I still stand by my founding assumption, that spirituality is a movement of thought. But the execution seems to have profoundly missed a fundamental point. And I think Niezsche's preface hits it on the head.
What is at stake is the very experience of prayer, of mindfulness towards one's condition, and most importantly of being the one who offers the prayer. I am prompted to pursue this not because of a basic failure in my argument but rather because of a basic failure in my practice. If I, the one who "wrote the book" on the Long Obligatory Prayer is unedified by the whole process, then how edifying could the book be in the first place? Now, as much as ever I feel disconnected and divided against myself as I perform the prayer. It is not I who offers it, but someone else who moves my body and my lips. I observe the whole thing. But rarely do I believe it, or even know it. It is not my anguish to which I testify when I say my blood boileth in my veins. In fact there is no anguish, only a passive looking-on. If there is any anguish it is that of a text, a text whose "I" has no referent but its own grammatical structure. "Is there anybody alive in there? Nobody but us in here!" As if in an out-of-body experience the soul strives for anything but to be present to and as itself as a sign of the Revelation of God. If the performer becomes present to oneself then he or she comes face to face with the burden of responsibility that comes with one's freedom. The reality of free choice and the demand for decisions come surging forward where otherwise there was only the mechanical repetition of ritualized gestures. But that is too terrifying a prospect. So the performer drowns his or herself in the vast ocean of sidenotes, details, and anectdotes. Anything is acceptable, just so long as it helps one hide from the responsibility that comes with human freedom.
For this reason, we must stare this fundamental responsibility in the face without flinching or looking away. My hope is little more than simply to look outward from myself, rather than at myself, from the outside, as if I am another person. For it is Baha'u'llah who says, every one of you knoweth his own self better than he knoweth others. And this is a far subtler exercise than the mere exploration of ideas. A person is not an idea. To engage with oneself as an idea is to put oneself at a distance and be consumed in the "beehives of our knowledge." To be present as oneself requires a more intuitive, possibly even more common-sensical approach to this whole project. It requires an ability to regard the movement of thought constitutive of spirituality independently of its crystallization into a constellation of ideas. It requires thinking the very experience of life, free of the ideas we use to understand it, and in so doing to flee it. But that is only the intellectual project. The spiritual project is little more than just "being there." In this way, there is no time for running away. There is only time for standing one's ground and coming to grips with one's own freedom before a mighty and empowering God.
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
One significant attribute of social power is the right to be irresponsible with impunity, while simultaneously demanding full responsibility as a matter of principle from those lacking in power. In this way, rules of responsible behavior, i.e. doing things in a timely manner, working towards a reasonable balance of one's own needs with the needs of others, "cleaning up one's own mess" etc. are set up as universal obligations by which all need to abide in order to make it in the world. But these supposedly universal obligations are only enforced or recognized as such at the convenience of the powerful.
I'd go into more detail, but I think anybody who would ever read this can probably think of plenty of examples when double standards are used by the powerful to entrench their own positions.
Rant over, and quite briefly at that.
Thursday, November 1, 2007
This was originally an addendum on the end of the previous entry. But I decided to give it a space of its own. It builds on the ideas presented in the first entry's long quotation from Abdu'l Baha.
Central to Abdu'l Baha's claim is that the world has shrunk in size. Whereas in past times a day's journey might have brought a traveler as far as the next town, now it might bringe the same traveler as far as another continent. But the immediate conclusion of this development is not necessarily that it will produces peace and prosperity for all people. After all he goes no further than stating the unity of all mankind can in this day be achieved. He does not say that it is being achieved. This is because old ways of doing things, developed while the peoples of the earth were still in relative isolation from each other, do not tend towards harmony and good will. They can also excite violence any disagreements or conflicts of interest that will always naturally arise. But the more that diverse peoples recognize their unavoidable interdependence the more that they recognize the need to get along.
So although the human race has been plunged into more famine, epidemic, warfare, and ecological destruction than at any point in its history, this does not mean that modernization and globalization are a straightforward fall from grace. It can also mean that humanity is merely in a process of transition, one fraught with opportunity as well as with pain. In 1936 Shoghi Effendi writes, We stand on the threshold of an age whose convulsions proclaim alike the death-pangs of the old order and the birth pangs of the new. Global unity here is not a distant dream to be realized but rather a concrete opportunity to be seized right now. And make no mistake about it, it is possible to fail to seize this opportunity.
The prolongation of this period of transition and adolescence is unnecessary. Globalization has made the unity of the human race a concrete reality. Whereas once we were strangers, now we are family. The choice before us is what to make of this new family arrangement. Will we manifest this new unity in its fullness through its recognition as the basis of a world order? Or will we continue to ignore it as the backdrop of increasingly internal conflicts, prolonging their corrosive effects. Forces beyond any individual's control have propelled us into a new era. But it is through the power of human choice that its actual content will be firmly determined.
In this way we return to the quote that introduces the previous entry.
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 217)
At the heart of the Baha'i teachings is that the time has arrived for the appearance of what Baha'u'llah called the Day of God and that his teachings are to serve as the animating spirit of this Kingdom of God on Earth. Whereas in the past humanity had lived apart from each other, in the coming age the organic unity of the human race would be the basis for a global civilization of divine justice. Pivotal to this idea is a single illuminating passage from the writings of Abdu'l Baha. Nowhere else do the Baha'i writings state so clearly the relationship between the Revelation of Baha'u'llah and the time period in which he conducted His ministry. Rather than an arbitrary imposition from on high, this passage imagines God's coming justice as something arisely organically out of the present structure of human civilization. In this entry I want to build up towards this passage which I quote in a rather extended form.
One of the first things to know about the Baha'i idea of the Day of God is that it is not brought about through cataclysmic supernatural forces. The prophecies of the Messiah, the Armageddon, or of the Qa'im may all contain images of warfare led by a divine figure. But their significance is limited to the perennial struggle between good and evil and the justice that God accomplishes by means of human beings. Physical warfare is only a metaphor, not the prophesied event. Thus, there would be no messiah coming out of the stratosphere, or a 9th century Arab returning to wage a global war against unbelievers. The Bab and Baha'u'llah came and went without the cataclysmic spectacle so widely expected. But their appearance did mark the beginning of a new era. And it is up to humanity to labor for the civilization initiated by the Baha'i Revelation. This enormous effort is the event prophesied through the image of war.
The Baha'i writings call their reader to imagine the Kingdom of God as beginning with a day like any other day that is in fact a day unlike any other. But it is no easy task pin down what makes such a day so unique. After all, life seems to go on just as it always has. The rich dominate the poor. Wars get started over greed, prejudice, and religion. And somehow the majority manage to eke out a decent lives for themselves. Such is certainly the case. But the big picture can easily be lost if one only focuses on the details. After all, a fish never knows when its wet. So it's certainly possible that the limitation of a person's experience to one period can blind him or her to enormous changes that have happened in the past. The world is always changing. But some changes are more radical than others. With this in mind, some people may notice this in their own day. Abdu'l Baha is one such person.
I contend that the below passage from his writings is absolutely essential for understanding Baha'i teachings on the Day of God. It shows the ways in which modernization and globalization have radically changed the way human beings relate to each other It shows how Baha'u'llah's teachings on global unity are not just an arbitrary imposition from on high. But rather something that is organically emerging as we speak. The passage's argument is simple. But its effects are profound.
O honoured lady! For a single purpose were the Prophets, each and all, sent down to earth; for this was Christ made manifest, for this did Bahá'u'lláh raise up the call of the Lord: that the world of man should become the world of God, this nether realm the Kingdom, this darkness light, this satanic wickedness all the virtues of heaven -- and unity, fellowship and love be won for the whole human race, that the organic unity should reappear and the bases of discord be destroyed and life everlasting and grace everlasting become the harvest of mankind.
O honoured lady! Look about thee at the world: here unity, mutual attraction, gathering together, engender life, but disunity and inharmony spell death. When thou dost consider all phenomena, thou wilt see that every created thing hath come into being through the mingling of many elements, and once this collectivity of elements is dissolved, and this harmony of components is dissevered, the life form is wiped out.
O honoured lady! In cycles gone by, though harmony was established, yet, owing to the absence of means, the unity of all mankind could not have been achieved. Continents remained widely divided, nay even among the peoples of one and the same continent association and interchange of thought were wellnigh impossible. Consequently intercourse, understanding and unity amongst all the peoples and kindreds of the earth were unattainable. In this day, however, means of communication have multiplied, and the five continents of the earth have virtually merged into one. And for everyone it is now easy to travel to any land, to associate and exchange views with its peoples, and to become familiar, through publications, with the conditions, the religious beliefs and the thoughts of all men. In like manner all the members of the human family, whether peoples or governments, cities or villages, have become increasingly interdependent. For none is self-sufficiency any longer possible, inasmuch as political ties unite all peoples and nations, and the bonds of trade and industry, of agriculture and education, are being strengthened every day. Hence the unity of all mankind can in this day be achieved. Verily this is none other but one of the wonders of this wondrous age, this glorious century. Of this past ages have been deprived, for this century -- the century of light -- hath been endowed with unique and unprecedented glory, power and illumination. Hence the miraculous unfolding of a fresh marvel every day. Eventually it will be seen how bright its candles will burn in the assemblage of man.
Behold how its light is now dawning upon the world's darkened horizon. The first candle is unity in the political realm, the early glimmerings of which can now be discerned. The second candle is unity of thought in world undertakings, the consummation of which will erelong be witnessed. The third candle is unity in freedom which will surely come to pass. The fourth candle is unity in religion which is the corner-stone of the foundation itself, and which, by the power of God, will be revealed in all its splendour. The fifth candle is the unity of nations -- a unity which in this century will be securely established, causing all the peoples of the world to regard themselves as citizens of one common fatherland. The sixth candle is unity of races, making of all that dwell on earth peoples and kindreds of one race. The seventh candle is unity of language, i.e., the choice of a universal tongue in which all peoples will be instructed and converse. Each and every one of these will inevitably come to pass, inasmuch as the power of the Kingdom of God will aid and assist in their realization.
(Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 31)
Sunday, October 14, 2007
The first quotation that students of Baha'i children's classes ever learn is this quotation: So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth. It comes from Baha'u'llah's Epistle to the Son of the Wolf. In its original context it is as follows.
The utterance of God is a lamp, whose light is these words: Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship. He Who is the Daystar of Truth beareth Me witness! So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth. The One true God, He Who knoweth all things, Himself testifieth to the truth of these words.
(Baha'u'llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 14)
The passage is a good choice on the part of the Ruhi institute as an introduction. For one, it focuses on the importance of unity within the Baha'i faith, and its need in this day. Secondly, it introduces the theme of illumination and manifestation from above that is a key component of Baha'u'llah's worldview. Though it is not immediately clear that this spiritual light is divine in origin, the imagery is a clear reference to the Surih of the Troops from the Qur'an.
And the trumpet shall be blown, and those who are in the heavens and in the earth shall swoon, save whom God pleases. Then it shall be blown again, and, lo! they shall stand up and look on. And the earth shall beam with the light of its Lord, and the Book shall be set forth, and the prophets and martyrs shall be brought; and it shall be decreed between them in truth, and they shall not be wronged!
(The Qur'an (E.H. Palmer tr), Sura 39 - The Troops)
Another passage in which God's creatures are said to manifest divine unity is in Baha'u'llah's address to the Ottoman Sultan Abdu'l Aziz, contained in the Suriy-i-Muluk.
Return, then, and cleave wholly unto God, and cleanse thine heart from the world and all its vanities, and suffer not the love of any stranger to enter and dwell therein. Not until thou dost purify thine heart from every trace of such love can the brightness of the light of God shed its radiance upon it, for to none hath God given more than one heart. This, verily, hath been decreed and written down in His ancient Book. And as the human heart, as fashioned by God, is one and undivided, it behoveth thee to take heed that its affections be, also, one and undivided. Cleave thou, therefore, with the whole affection of thine heart, unto His love, and withdraw it from the love of anyone besides Him, that He may aid thee to immerse thyself in the ocean of His unity, and enable thee to become a true upholder of His oneness.
(Baha'u'llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 214)
Though in the previous passage unity refers to fellowship between human beings, in this instance unity refers to a person's whole-hearted commitment to divine guidance. One thought that might pop into one's mind is that these two passages are slightly contradictory. In particular it doesn't immediately make sense how the unity of the human race is promoted by withdrawing one's heart from the love of anyone besides Him as is prescribed in the second passage. They come together though if one considers the type of love that we ought to display. Rather than love people for themselves, it makes more sense to love God with one's full heart. When that is accomplished that love will overflow into our relationships with all people. For we will see the light of the Creator that is present within each of his creatures. Abdu'l Baha writes,
Love the creatures for the sake of God and not for themselves. You will never become angry or impatient if you love them for the sake of God. Humanity is not perfect. There are imperfections in every human being, and you will always become unhappy if you look toward the people themselves. But if you look toward God, you will love them and be kind to them, for the world of God is the world of perfection and complete mercy.
(Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 92)
In conclusion, unity is not so much a worldly condition that God has prescribed for his creatures. It can also be seen as a divine attribute which overflows into creation when a person shows forth a deep love for the one Creator. In this way, the earth shall beam with the light of its Lord.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
The paragraph below is from an account of Abdu'l Baha's visit to Great Britain in 1912. Suffice to say, It is highly amusing.
Later, on Christmas day, He visited Lord Lamington (see p. 8). In the evening He went to a Salvation Army hostel, where some five hundred of society's wrecks were gathered. He spoke to them, and donated twenty guineas to the hostel to provide them with a good meal and another night, as His guests. He also inspected the sleeping accommodation of the hostel, and a children's home as well. When He reached Cadogan Gardens that night, it was apparent that the sight of the condition of the unfortunate had distressed Him. A good many of His talks, in His drawing-room during the Christmas week, were concerned with the Birth and the Advent of Christ and the significance of baptism. One day He walked for an hour or so in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Afterwards He went to a Christmas party for the impoverished. Wherever He came across children He showed them such kindness and consideration that some of them thought He was Father Christmas, and sang a song in His praise.
(H.M. Balyuzi, Abdu'l-Baha - The Centre of the Covenant, p. 350)
Monday, October 8, 2007
Obligatory prayers should not be offered in congregation, except the Prayer for the Dead. Baha’is have three obligatory prayers. First one is the long obligatory prayer which is to be offered once in every 24 hours and has completely invented genuflections and verses. The second obligatory prayer is the medium one, offered in the morning, noon and night. The third is the short obligatory prayer and offered at the time of sunset. Of course reciting one of these three prayers will suffice. And if one were to chose the short obligatory prayer it is almost like not praying at all. The Qiblih [the Point of Adoration] is the burial spot of Mirza Husayn-Ali Baha in Akka, Israel.
This is part of a broader critique of Baha'is that since Muslims pray five times a day that this is better than one or three times a day: the more the holier. This simplistic view, I think, is in need of a thorough dismantling. It is recounted in Islamic tradition that God at first enjoined upon Muhammad that the Muslims should pray fifty times a day, but that with negotiation Muhammad talked God down to requiring it only five times a day. One part of this episode is recounted in the following hadith.
Allah gave this joyful news along with the reduction to the Prophet Allah that: “Oh my Prophet! The word is never changed in my presence. You will take the benefit of fifty times of Salah in return of performing five times a day of Salah” (İbn-i Mâce, İkâmetü's salât, 194) http://www.namazzamani.net/english/what_is_salah.htm
That the five times could take on the benefit of the fifty is certainly an example of the Islamic-Baha'i principle "Verily, God doeth whatsoever He willeth and ordaineth whatsoever He pleaseth." That something is good is not so because of inherent qualities, but because of those graces that have been bestowed upon it by the will of God, a will that is not constrained by any other standard of righteousness.
If Muhammad decrees that it be five times a day, then yes, it is the law of God regarding obligatory prayer. If Baha'u'llah says one or three times, then yes, that is the law of God regarding obligatory prayer. Indeed if both declared none, then that too would be the law of God. Verily, God doeth whatsoever He willeth and ordaineth whatsoever He pleaseth. In this light whatever is the law is irrelevant. What matters is whether or not something is revealed by the will of God. And this cannot be determined by investigating how often the believers are instructed to pray.
Similarly, the reasons behind the divine laws can exceed the understanding of human beings.
It is nonetheless indisputably clear and evident that the minds of men have never been, nor shall they ever be, of equal capacity. The Perfect Intellect alone can provide true guidance and direction.
-Baha'u'llah in the Tabernacle of Unity p.29
There is in addition a second weakness in the claim "if one were to chose the short obligatory prayer it is almost like not praying at all." This is that for Baha'is, this word is the Word of God. That this doesn't occur to the writer is evidenced by the claim that the long obligatory prayer "has completely invented genuflections and verses." What is meant by this is that the Baha'i obligatory prayers do not come from the words of Muhammad. Instead, they are those of Baha'u'llah, whose words for Baha'is are the Word of God. Such an objection is no different than a Christian denouncing Islamic Salaat as completely fabricated because their words are not Biblical in origin. But I digress. Given that the words of the Short Obligatory prayer are those of God by way of Baha'ullah, then there should be no concern regarding its efficacy, for the word of God is not just any word. It contains a power far exceeding the limitations of merely human speech. The following is one place where Baha'u'llah speaks of the efficacy of the Word of God.
Every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God is endowed with such potency as can instill new life into every human frame, if ye be of them that comprehend this truth.
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 140)
It should be noted that in the original Arabic, the Short Obligatory Prayer consists of 28 words.
Baha'u'llah also explains the efficacy of the Word of God in this way,
Intone, O My servant, the verses of God that have been received by thee, as intoned by them who have drawn nigh unto Him, that the sweetness of thy melody may kindle thine own soul, and attract the hearts of all men. Whoso reciteth, in the privacy of his chamber, the verses revealed by God, the scattering angels of the Almighty shall scatter abroad the fragrance of the words uttered by his mouth, and shall cause the heart of every righteous man to throb. Though he may, at first, remain unaware of its effect, yet the virtue of the grace vouchsafed unto him must needs sooner or later exercise its influence upon his soul. Thus have the mysteries of the Revelation of God been decreed by virtue of the Will of Him Who is the Source of power and wisdom.
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 295)
In conclusion, all of my objections to the above poster revolve around one single point, that it is irrelevant to look at the details of religious laws when looking for their authority. Rather, one must examine first and foremost, whether or not their source is in fact a Revelation from God. This can only come through an unbiased examination of the life of the one making the claim. Perhaps I will touch on this last point more in the future.
Thursday, October 4, 2007
I was reading some pretty funky stuff on Academic Search Premier (God bless my still- active Earlham library account) when a rather strange thought in my head. This post is the explication of that thought. It concerns the possibility of free choice. But I do not want to pick sides in the free will-determinism debate. That would be rather…well…lame. Instead I will explore the experience of being a freely willing I and the conditions that make that possible. Perhaps it will help me understand what I am.
“I have made choices in the past and will continue to do so in the future.” This is the manifesto of the freely choosing I. At first glance it appears obvious. But open closer examination its basic assumptions turn upon themselves with such strength that it’s a bit of a wonder the experience of freedom remains intact all the while.
On the one hand to be an I is to be a unity that gathers together and fuses a multiplicity of singular moments. Once together they form a temporal sequence, a unified field that cuts across variations in time and place. Insofar as their I-ness is concerned, each moment is equal. They all partake on a level plane of the I that unites them. In this way, a person distinguishes oneself from things. I alone am conscious. I am different. My existence transcends my immediate presence and extends outward into past and future. Across time, I am the same I.
But on the other hand, that sameness and continuity can be the very failure of a person to distinguish oneself from mere, inanimate things. In this model to be human is to be able a choose between a multiplicity, to determines one’s own destiny in one direction rather than another, and by extension to make changes to oneself. After all, we are the choices we make. To fail to determine one’s own destiny is to be stripped of his or her humanity and to become a mere function of who or whatever does. Everyone has experienced this in one limited circumstance or another, as a slab of meat in a hospital bed, a sex-object exploited for another’s pleasure, or an assembly line worker whose occupation is to be little more than a carbon-based robot. In such situations a cold indifferent unity is projected upon one’s existence. The fork in the road is erased, and replaced with the bare necessity of a straight path. To change oneself and one’s surroundings in such contexts is not an option. But to do so is the very means by which one distinguishes oneself from mere things. To establish one’s freedom of choice is to cut against the unity of necessity and choose one path over others. It is to establish oneself as an empty and surging contingency in the space between a multiplicity of options. If there was only one option then there could be no space to insert oneself, only the overbearing presence of destiny.
So, on the one hand, to be a freely choosing I requires a unity for its very constitution. This is what makes consciousness rise above the singular nothings of which it is formed or are immediately present as things set before us in experience. But on the other hand if I am to be in control of my destiny there must be a possibility of change in myself, and thus of violation to that unity. One must be situated between a multiplicity of options so as to surpass the dead unity of thingness. To choose is to tie off the unity of the already-is so as to open up the new reality of the just-now. To be an I requires that one bridge the gap between these two moments, while the reality of that choice depends upon the substantiality of their difference. To be a freely choosing I requires both a unity and a fracturing of that unity, opening the space for choice between the multiple.
“I have made choices in the past and will continue to do so in the future.” Caught between the one and the multiple, the necessary and the contingent the freely choosing I is a far odder terrain than at first imagined.
Friday, September 21, 2007
This state of perplexity was unexpectedly thrust upon me once while attending Quaker meeting for worship. That particular week we were presented with queries upon which to meditate. Each one dealt with something "spiritual" e.g. whether or not we do our part to nurture a "spiritual " community, or whether or not when we speak during worship it comes from a true "spiritual" leading. The excess with which that word showed up in the queries led me to ask if anyone could illustrate the meaning of this indispensable word. In so doing, since whether or not something is spiritual is the criterion for speaking or not speaking I experienced an enormous feeling of liberation. For the very criterion for appropriate speech had been brought into question. All speech had become fair game. Upon inquiry no one felt capable of determining what was meant, though in fact the queries assumed that it is in fact possible to recognize the difference between something that is spiritual and something that is not spiritual. A state of perplexity had descended upon the entire congregation. No conclusions were reached at this meeting, only more questions, and a desire to pursue them. Because of this I was immensely satisfied with the outcome of the meeting. This was how I came to be possessed by a seemingly indispensable question: "what do we mean when we invoke the word spiritual?"
What is sought by this question is not the true meaning of the spiritual divorced from what people think it is. Rather, what is sought is the precise way that I think a great deal of people, myself included, use this word and know what is meant upon its invocation. In this case, I don't think I am foisting my own meaning upon others but rather am pointing out the unexpected versatility of an already widespread usage. Towards this end I would like to share another story from a Quaker meeting for worship. Hopefully, it will provide a clear understanding of what exactly is at stake when we inquire as to the boundaries of the spiritual.
A few months before the above meeting I was privileged to hear a short message delivered by a dear acquaintance of mine, a Unitarian-Universalist, Alex Winnett. In his message he defended eagerly the spiritual stature of secular humanism, a viewpoint that loosely categorizes a wide variety of people who have a passion for life, and the upliftment of all people but do not necessarily believe in or rely upon a higher power for their inspiration. In particular he lamented the exclusion of secular humanists from interfaith gatherings. The point he was trying to drive home is that such people are just as worthy to take part in such gatherings. Their relationship to the divine might be different than other participants, but with regard to interfaith gatherings the inclusion of different viewpoints is precisely the point. But what is it that unites all these different groups, Muslims, Christians, Baha'is, Buddhists, Hindus, Secular humanists, etc.? (It is with great pain, mind you, that I lump in "everyone else" with that "etc." As a a Baha'i I know all too well the frustration of such erasure and marginalization.) Surely, there is something that binds all these different groups together, gives them something to talk about, and provides the common language to do so. It is this unifying element that is the central concern of this essay.
Towards this end, I will advance a working definition for the elusive word in question. As a domain of human life, Spirituality is the engagement with the profound. Any question regarding the spiritual pertains to those things that are deep, affecting, and powerful. In this way spirituality refers to those things that are most foundational, most fundamental to who we are. This interest in the foundational is what makes spirituality so "deep." Furthermore, spirituality refers to the relationship between profound matters and particular situations in which they would become manifest. It is about the relationship between those things that are most essential about us, our "spirit" if you will, and how it is expressed in the particularity of any given moment. In this way, spirituality is persistently obsessed with the question of putting things into practice and letting deeds not words be your adorning. In addition, when the foundations change, the rest of the edifice changes with it. Such is the power of the profound. In still another light spirituality regards our inquiry of the very assumption of a relationship between a personal essence and the particularity of any given moment. This is the question of self and non-self, a subject that is foundational to so many great spiritual traditions.
One might be led to wonder, "where is God, or a higher truth, in all of this?" The answer is that theism, and its expression in a particular tradition is only a form of spirituality and not spirituality as such. In this understanding, to become spiritual wouldn't mean to begin praying, to get baptized, or read scripture. All it would mean is to become self-aware and to inquire into the nature of oneself and of the world. What this means is that what I have seen many people mean by spiritual can be applied in a wider set of circumstances then conventionally understood. Indeed, "the profound" exceeds its articulation as such. The implications of this can be explored by way of example.
Imagine a young woman who dedicates a lot of energy towards advancing her career and becoming successful. Naomi reads books on time management, attends classes to sharpen her business skills, and puts in extra hours at work to impress the boss. She is very focused at making all of these pieces in her life fit together. This is how she advances a broader goal of attaining a certain position in her company by a certain date. In this way, she will feel accomplished. But then one day, she realizes that the success that she has already gained has not made her happy, and that gaining more is unlikely to make her any happier. Naomi then goes through a bit of a personal crisis wondering what to do with her life. As a way of pursuing a greater happiness, she takes up Vipassana meditation. With practice she gains greater and greater insight into the causes of suffering, and the ways to undo their painful effects upon one's psyche. In this way Naomi gains a greater happiness than she ever would have gained from obtaining the position she wanted in her company.
Conventionally, people would say that Naomi became spiritual during the course of this story. They would imply that only the meditation was properly spiritual. Instead, I would like to interpret this story as a transition from one spirituality to another. The reason I say this is because both lifestyles involved an engagement with the profound and a concern for its manifestation in the particular moments of one's life. One was based on vision of happiness derived from having influence over the world around oneself, and the salary that comes with that power. The other is based on a vision of happiness that involves uprooting the causes of psychological pain. In this light Naomi did not change by becoming spiritual. Instead, she spiritually changed by switching out the foundations that guide her daily life.
One difficulty in accepting this understanding of spirituality is that people who regard themselves as spiritual don't want to think of careerism as "an engagement with the profound." They would much rather consider it as an intoxication with the superficial. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it discounts the profound degree of "spirit" that it takes to ascend the corporate ladder. It requires the summoning of inner resources to power through obstacles and fulfill one's "deepest" desires. It may result in a lot of stress and psychological frustration, but this is the lot of anyone who sets out on a profound endeavor. Furthermore, this world-view has ways of dealing with these problems, oftentimes explicitly spiritual and religious. That these should be regarded as unspiritual is a curious double standard.
That this wide dispersal of spirituality has not been recognized is because those spiritual traditions conventionally recognized as such are accustomed to holding a near monopoly on spirituality. Between them, any discussion of the profound usually took place within at least one of them. Certainly, these discussions did take place outside of religion, i.e. a merchant explaining to an apprentice the prerequisites for financial success. But in the modern age these discussions have proliferated in the "secular" realm and have increasingly sought the types of public attention once reserved for the major religions. An excellent example of the way in which "the profound" had parted company with the major religions while still retaining its "spiritual forms" is in the birth of psychoanalysis and its appropriation from Catholicism of the act of confession before a confessor. It should be noted however that this secularization is only superficial. Inasmuch as a person engages with the profound he or she commits an act of religion and sets out on a path well worn by the world's major religions.
Little wonder then, that atheists and agnostics should be inquiring into the traditional subjects of religion, the prerequisites of justice, true happiness, the meaning of life, etc. That they are spiritual creatures is unmistakable. Indeed, their spirit is at least as strong on most occasions as those who identify as religious. To regard secularism as a spiritual wasteland is to lose sight of the rich manifestations of vitality happening outside the bounds of the conventionally spiritual. This is well-understood by anybody who has known someone who is "a good person" even an excellent person but who doesn't consider him or herself as spiritual.
If I want the reader to come away with anything it is this, that those "fruits of the spirit" exceed the boundaries of where and when people conventionally use the word spiritual, and that this exclusion privileges the recognition of those fruits within the fold of those regarded as spiritual. Furthermore, I think this demonstrates the need for a rather "spiritual" endeavor." Since spirituality concerns the relationship between the foundational and the particular that it supports, I believe there is a need for "putting into practice" an engagement with the profound across spiritual lines, that those conventionally included and excluded from term "spirituality" discover through fellowship that they have more in common than they thought. This in turn can open up avenues of exchange by which we can enjoy the profound benefits of each other's deepest treasures.
Sunday, July 8, 2007
Say: Take heed lest your devotions withhold you from Him Who is the object of all devotion, or your worship debar you from Him Who is the object of all worship. Rend asunder the veils of your idle fancies! This is your Lord, the Almighty, the All-Knowing, Who hath come to quicken the world and unite all who dwell on earth.
Certainly, prayer and worship would be spectularly unorthodox if its purpose is to worship oneself and not God. But strangely enough, there is plenty of reason to believe that this is very common, if not the norm. The above passage from the Suratu'l'Haykal is a warning against this problem, highlighting the way that the very means of approach towards God can become obstacles to accomplishing their specific purpose.
If we take Baha'u'llah at his word in the Kitab-al-Iqan, then human beings can never engage with God as the absolute. This would be impossible because the two are essentially different from each other (think oil and water). Any engagement that humans would have would always be at the level of his manifest attributes and virtues (his "Names" in Islamic-Baha'i parlance). These are not God, but they are the signs of his dominion, and the effects of his "will." I want to frame this discussion in terms of this distinction between God as the absolute and God as manifest Names. Worship of God in this context would then be a sort of engagement with the divine attributes: his mercy, his wisdom, his justice, etc. After all, in the Long Obligatory Prayer the performer testifies Too high art Thou for the praise of those who are near unto Thee to ascend unto the heaven of Thy nearness. I know that this claim isn't exactly air tight, that prayer and worship is always an engagement with the divine names rather than the essence. But at the very least it helps show that Baha'i spirituality isn't so much oriented exclusively at a single transcendent being that is above and beyond all creation, as it is about the play of His "Light" within creation. Within the Baha'i faith this is usually associated with the Manifestations of God, and their unique gift of manifesting the divine spirity. But all people, and indeed all of creation is also involved to some extent in the manifestation of these same attributes and virtues. Below are two verses from the Arabic Hidden Words. They help illustrate the complex role that one's own self plays within this arrangement.
O SON OF BEING! Thou art My lamp and My light is in thee. Get thou from it thy radiance and seek none other than Me. For I have created thee rich and have bountifully shed My favor upon thee.
O YE SONS OF SPIRIT! Ye are My treasury, for in you I have treasured the pearls of My mysteries and the gems of My knowledge. Guard them from the strangers amidst My servants and from the ungodly amongst My people.
In both instances, the self is regarded as a sort of vehicle for the divine and that one's effectiveness as a vehicle is dependent upon one's spiritual efforts. Clearly, this possession of divine attributes is something that occurs in this world. It either is or is not happening right now within oneself and in one's surroundings. The divine is immanent, as is the capacity to protect and manifest that divinity. Since the ferrying of the divine attributes is dependent upon one's own efforts, the engagement with the divine is in many ways an effort to make one's self more effective at protecting and manifesting those signs of God within us. The great danger is that one might take a narcissistic pride in one's own success. At which point, prayer and worship can become the very barrier to submission before God. Here is another passage from the Suratu'l' Haykal.
Bring then into being, by Our leave, resplendent mirrors and exalted letters that shall testify to Thy sovereignty and dominion, bear witness to Thy might and glory, and be the manifestations of Thy Names amidst mankind.... Warn, then, these mirrors, once they have been made manifest, lest they swell with pride before their Creator and Fashioner when He appeareth amongst them, or let the trappings of leadership delude and debar them from bowing in submission before God, the Almighty, the All-Beauteous.
This isn't just a matter of abstract theologizing that only comes up when considering esoteric points of Baha'i thought. It's a matter that comes up everywhere at all times. It comes up everytime that public prayer is used as a form of social protest. It comes up whenever religious events become an occasion to contemplate how superior "we" are to the "them," whatever pejorative they're assigned. It comes up everytime a person shows satisfaction at the development of their spiritual practice. If I wanted to be more specific, I could continue until I get really, really annoying. All that needs to be said is that any recognition of goodness within oneself, whether or not it be by one's own merits is at the same time a recognition of the evil in others and their failure to come to the good. All of this is just patting oneself on the back, something not too far off from narcissism, which is self-worship almost by definition.
But isn't prayer a time to praise God? Of course it is. But the only means of approach is through the manifestation of his attributes and virtues in creation. And who is it that is most capable of manifesting those attributes and virtues. Chances are any given person is likely to say "people like me," "people associated with me," "People I aspire to emulate." They may even go for the gold and just say "me." As terrible as it sounds that last one just might be the most honest.
Anyhoo, before I wrap this up I want to say that this isn't just a problem for those communities who believe that we aproach God through his manifest attributes rather than directly. It's a problem with anyone who considers themselves or their community as a privileged vehicle or treasury of that which is most necessary, holy, useful, and good. That was the inspiration behind selecting the second quotation from the Hidden words that I used earlier. It shows the way that oneself and the community around it can become treasuries of the divine, which must be protected from outsiders. Furthermore this isn't just about religion. It's about any claim to goodness and its distribution in the world, and that such a claim is usually that it is most concentrated in something closely associated with oneself.
Perhaps I should end with a quote. I'm not going to comment on it specifically. But clearly, it's a response to the same issues I wanted to raise.
Man must be a lover of the light, no matter from what dayspring it may appear. He must be a lover of the rose, no matter in what soil it may be growing. He must be a seeker of the truth, no matter from what source it come. Attachment to the lantern is not loving the light. Attachment to the earth is not befitting, but enjoyment of the rose which develops from the soil is worthy. Devotion to the tree is profitless, but partaking of the fruit is beneficial.
Saturday, June 30, 2007
I've only read through it once. So I don't think I've fully mastered its argument. I'll just say this. It makes me rather uneasy because I don't think it has due respect for themes of self-justifying arbitrariness in Baha'u'llah's writings.
In Plato's dialogue, the Euthyphro, the character of Socrates asks of his companion a difficult and quite perplexing question: Is piety good because it is pleasing to the gods, or is it pleasing to the gods because it is good? This is just a paraphrase. But it conveys the clear distinction there is between two ideas that are often presented together as if they were not contradictory.
On the one hand is the notion that piety is good because it is pleasing to the gods. This means that something is not good because of any inherent qualities, but rather because they have received endorsement by the sovereign authority.
On the other hand is the notion that piety is pleasing to the gods because it is good. This means that something is good because of inherent qualities that are present in themselves. In this case, the gods are just connisieurs of goodness, a reality that exists prior to the gods and their decrees. In this case, the gods are not sovereign. Rather, the good is the sovereign authority, and the authority of the gods is only in their superior ability to discern goodness.
Socrates argued for this second position. His notion of the sovereign and unified "goodness in itself" displaced the authority of Zeus, Apollo, Athena and the rest of the Athenian pantheon. Understandably this led to a charge that he discouraged the worship of the gods of the city, and promoted new gods instead. For this he was executed, and logically so.
Though this debate within Athenian religion has long since disappeared, the stubborn difficulty of this problem has persisted. Indeed it cuts right through the writings of Baha'u'llah. Taken as a whole his writings never take decisivily one position or the other. Depending on the context he uses either of the positions outlined by Plato's Socrates to defend and justify his mission to the world. The reason I want to explore this issue is because I think it has enormous consequences for how to understand Baha'u'llah, his teachings, and how his followers should relate to his teachings and the world. In particular, this issue concerns how to explain and justify Baha'u'llah's teachings to those who are not acquainted with the faith.
On the one hand Baha'u'llah is fond of remarking that God doeth what he willeth and ordaineth whatsoever he pleaseth. Since there is no higher authority for God to appeal, his action then is justified by his own act of willing it. This of course, would make his actions arbitrary, but that's the point. Something rises above arbitrariness once it can appeal to a higher authority for its judgments. The courts fall back on the law, philosophers fall back on reason, historians fall back on their sources. But this backward citation of authority must come to an end somewhere. At this point, a thing's authority is not from something higher, but rather from its very self. This is what it means to be arbitrary. Furthermore this arbitrariness is inscribed into all judgments that refer back to that arbitrary foundational principle. When Baha'u'llah remarks that God doeth what he willeth and ordaineth whatsoever he pleaseth he declares God is the sovereign authority of all things, the measure by which all judgments are made, and the source of all goodness that can be justified as such.
On the other hand Baha'u'llah cites as his authority that his teachings are in humanity's best interest. Take this passage from the Lawh-i-Manikchi-Sahib the first line is the most important but I've quoted the whole thing just because of how much I love this passage. In fact one of the first entries of this blog was on this passage. I believe it was called the Will to Salvation.
The All-Knowing Physician hath His finger on the pulse of mankind. He perceiveth the disease, and prescribeth, in His unerring wisdom, the remedy. Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require. Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.
In this model, the manifestation of God is particularly expert at discerning the needs of a particular time and place. His authority is not so much his will, but the needs-in-themselves that he is so skilled at diagnosing. Such a model relies on a vision of the universe in which everything has within itself a true purpose and nature inherent to it. God would know his creation better than anyone, so thus he would be the most authoritative guide to these "true needs." In this way, the authority of the manifestation is based on the practical efficacy of his teachings, and their harmony with the world, and hence science. God then, would be the superior scientist.
So, as we can see the stance that God ordaineth whatsoever he pleaseth is in clear tension with his claim to being the All-Knowing Physician. I don't want to resolve this conflict as such. For one, I have my doubts that it could ever be sufficiently resolved. At the very least though, I want to highlight these issues and point out how these themes take shape as strategies for explaining the Baha'i faith to oneself and to others.
The other strategy then would be to show that Baha'u'llah's teachings are the greatest hope humanity has to achieve collective happiness and well-being. This of course involves a lot of guess-work, seeing as how it is is extremely unlikely, if not conceptually impossible, to see anytime soon Baha'u'llah's teachings being universally put into practice "in their purity," what ever that is. Anyway, if Baha'u'llah's teachings need to be promoted then that necessarily implies that they are in need of further implementation. Thus, any argument that somebody would make for their value is in one sense a reasonable guess, and in another sense a promise without a strict guarantee. As difficult as this strategy may be, I'm a big promoter of it. Pondering the practicality of Baha'u'llah's teachings is my biggest inspiration for following his exhortation in the Kitab-i-Aqdas to Immerse yourselves in the ocean of My words, that ye may unravel its secrets, and discover all the pearls of wisdom that lie hid in its depths.
One perplexity of this strategy is that it subordinates the authority of divine teachings to whatever is the dominant vision at the time of what is and is not rational, and the people that represent that rationality. As long as their has been thought, it has been used to respond positively to the world. So anyone who is engaged in thought is also at the same time engaged in the question of how best to live in this world. Baha'u'llah is not the only one trying to be viewed as the All-Knowing Physician. This posture and promise stands at the very heart of any pursuit of expertise, whether it be scientific, philosophical, medical, political, etc. Any community from any of these fields has their own idea of what is rational and in humanity's best interest. Their influence on thought should not be forgotten when considering the rational "merit" of any religous ideas, in this case, Baha'u'llah's teachings. It's not unreasonable to argue that any one of these expert visions are arranged in such a way as to necessarily exclude anything that does not fit into their world-view. In fact, I'd say its perfectly reasonable, maybe even tautological.
This admittedly is very difficult terrain, and worthy of a few books itself, certainly its own blog entry. Suffice to say, I'm not eager to explain Baha'u'llah in terms of the world's various ideologies. Many times its tempting to think about how Baha'u'llah would make a fine quantum physicist, post-Gramsci Marxist, or innovative humanist psychologist. But such projects are all just such prostitution in my eyes and I won't stand for it. I'm certainly not in the "it's-true-because-Baha'u'llah-says-so-crowd" (see above link). But as a godfearing monotheist, I will not tolerate subordinating his teachings to the latest whims of the gods of this world: the guardians of rationalities in the university, the think-tanks, government, and media.
Friday, June 22, 2007
The lyrics are a combination of Arabic and English. In English it reads.
I am small
My head is ball.
My hair is tall.
My eyes are ink.
My cheeks are pink.
My teeth are milk.
After thinking about this song for a while I have taken up a militant confidence in its profundity as an expression of religiosity. I say this for two reasons. For one, it draws a connection between one's basic means of worldly sustenance and God's generosity. Secondly, it violates the postures of maturity and seriousness that hinder one's recognition of this very serious, even grave, matter.
I won't lie. These aren't original ideas (as if such things could ever be conceived or even recognized as such). Rather, I have been fortunate enough to hear that Thich Nhaht Hanh (sp?) uses similar childrens' songs to instill humility and spontaneity among his students. Furthermore, I'm drawing on the Gospels. If I had a Bible with me right now, I'd find a quote. Suffice to say, there are multiple occasions in which the Apostles are arguing amongst each other about who is the greatest among them (typical electoral politics). Jesus then tells them to shut their faces and learn from the example of children. What exactly that means is sort of ambiguous, but I hope to offer an interpretation of that in the course of this entry.
Readers of the Qur'an would know that the earliest portions of the Qur'an, those revealed in Mecca, focus most heavily, and most repititiously on such foundational concepts. They are constantly reminded that God is the one who created humanity, that he is the one who makes the rain fall, and crops to grow. To make a long story short, humanity is dependent on God in all ways. For this reason we should offer praise to the one who has raised us up, and will raise us up a second time on the Last Day.
In simple language the song reminds the singer of various parts of the body that he or she might take for granted, and that they are (usually) in good condition. The song then move effortlessly towards the logical conclusion: Praise God!
Many would accuse me of being silly for writing this entry. They would say that this is all theological child's play and not the domain of serious religion. To them I would say: Stop taking yourselves so seriously, and start taking God seriously, the source of our existence.
There is a proper time for all things. For this reason, children must grow up to be adults, and take up adult responsibilities. But in the discharge of such duties, it is easy to forget the support that we recieve from God. For example, by concentrating so heavily on what "I" need to do I might ignore all those things that have already been done for me. This does not just pertain to God, but to other people as well. After all, God bestows his bounties throughout creation, especially in other people. For that reason, we should respect all people who have made contributions to our prosperity, not just those who are better positioned to claim publicly that it was "their" contribution that made all the difference. The serious business of taking responsibility must then take into account the equally serious matter of honoring contributions in the most appropriate manner.
All things come from God. And to him all things return. All powers that exist in the world are only manifestations of his power in creation. Everything we see in our lives that benefit us owes its existence to God. He is the one who makes the wind blow andthe most any one person can say is that he or she is a sail. It is upon his support that people are allowed to "set sail." Only then can we proceed with power and influence in this world. All expressions of power, even so-called independence, are necessarily dependent on other factors, worldly, or other-worldy that have been brought into existence by God.
This is why children's songs are so important. Childhood is a time when one feels very concretely this dependence on others. It's not that children are more dependent than adults. It's just that its a lot harder to deny this dependence at that age. Everybody at all times is always dependent on someone or something else. This is the reality of the universe. Recognizing it is the responsibility of all serious-minded individuals.
The song is amazing not just because it recognizes the immanence of God's generosity. But furthermore, its very form upsets the spiritual posturing that assumes otherwise. It helps point out the great absurdity of adulthood, especially among the modern middle class: that adults have achieved independence. Could lies more adulterous ever be conceived? Could such seriousness ever be taken seriously? To hell with you hubris-mongerers! From God we have come. And to God will we return. For them this song may be playtime. But for others this is a religious duty of the highest priority.
What other option is there but to Praise God!
I've included an excellent passage from the Lawh-i-Ra'is, a writing of Baha'u'llah. It too is one of the inspirations for this entry. If it helps put the passage in context, I'll say that it is bookended by unrelenting fire and brimstone. This was written immediately following He and his followers exile to Akka. It could be said this was Baha'u'llah's "angry period," and is addressed to an orchestrator of his exile in the Ottoman court.
Have ye fondly imagined your glory to be imperishable and your dominion to be everlasting? Nay, by Him Who is the All-Merciful! Neither will your glory last, nor will Mine abasement endure. Such abasement, in the estimation of a true man, is the pride of every glory.
When I was still a child and had not yet attained the age of maturity, My father made arrangements in Tihrán for the marriage of one of My older brothers, and as is customary in that city, the festivities lasted for seven days and seven nights. On the last day it was announced that the play "Sháh Sultán Salím" would be presented. A large number of princes, dignitaries, and notables of the capital gathered for the occasion. I was sitting in one of the upper rooms of the building 166 and observing the scene. Presently a tent was pitched in the courtyard, and before long some small human-like figures, each appearing to be no more than about a hand’s span in height, were seen to emerge from it and raise the call: "His Majesty is coming! Arrange the seats at once!" Other figures then came forth, some of whom were seen to be engaged in sweeping, others in sprinkling water, and thereafter another, who was announced as the chief town crier, raised his call and bade the people assemble for an audience with the king. Next, several groups of figures made their appearance and took their places, the first attired in hats and sashes after the Persian fashion, the second wielding battleaxes, and the third comprising a number of footmen and executioners carrying bastinados. Finally there appeared, arrayed in regal majesty and crowned with a royal diadem, a kingly figure, bearing himself with the utmost haughtiness and grandeur, at turns advancing and pausing in his progress, who proceeded with great solemnity, poise and dignity to seat himself upon his throne.
At that moment a volley of shots was fired, a fanfare of trumpets was sounded, and king and tent were enveloped in a pall of smoke. When it had cleared, the king, ensconced upon his throne, was seen surrounded by a suite of ministers, princes, and dignitaries of state who, having taken their places, were standing at attention in his presence. A captured thief was then brought before the king, who gave the order that the offender should be beheaded. Without a moment’s delay the chief executioner cut off the thief’s head, whence a blood-like liquid came forth. After this the king held audience with his court, during which intelligence was received that a rebellion had broken out on a certain frontier. Thereupon the king reviewed his troops and despatched several regiments supported by artillery to quell the uprising. A few moments later cannons were heard booming from behind the tent, and it was announced that a battle had been engaged.
This Youth regarded the scene with great amazement. When the royal audience was ended, the curtain was drawn, and, after some twenty minutes, a man emerged from behind the tent carrying a box under his arm.
"What is this box," I asked him, "and what was the nature of this display?"
"All this lavish display and these elaborate devices," he replied, "the king, the princes, and the ministers, their pomp and glory, their might and power, everything you saw, are now contained within this box."
I swear by My Lord Who, through a single word of His Mouth, hath brought into being all created things! Ever since that day, all the trappings of the world have seemed in the eyes of this Youth akin to that same spectacle. They have never been, nor will they ever be, of any weight and consequence, be it to the extent of a grain of mustard seed. How greatly I marvelled that men should pride themselves upon such vanities, whilst those possessed of insight, ere they witness any evidence of human glory, perceive with certainty the 168 inevitability of its waning. "Never have I looked upon any thing save that I have seen extinction before it; and God, verily, is a sufficient witness!"
It behoveth everyone to traverse this brief span of life with sincerity and fairness. Should one fail to attain unto the recognition of Him Who is the Eternal Truth, let him at least conduct himself with reason and justice. Erelong these outward trappings, these visible treasures, these earthly vanities, these arrayed armies, these adorned vestures, these proud and overweening souls, all shall pass into the confines of the grave, as though into that box. In the eyes of those possessed of insight, all this conflict, contention and vainglory hath ever been, and will ever be, like unto the play and pastimes of children. Take heed, and be not of them that see and yet deny.
Our call concerneth not this Youth and the loved ones of God, for they are already sore-tried and imprisoned and expect nothing from men such as thee. Our purpose is that thou mayest lift up thy head from the couch of heedlessness, shake off the slumber of negligence, and cease to oppose unjustly the servants of God. So long as thy power and ascendancy endure, strive to alleviate the suffering of the oppressed. Shouldst thou judge with fairness and observe with the eye of discernment the conflicts and pursuits of this transient world, thou wouldst readily acknowledge that they are even as the play which We have described.